For 8 years, the chasm between Apple's iOS and Android has shifted to grow wider as their design guidelines have evolved. But one truth remains the same: a successful app is one that achieves clear communication with its users.
Developers must focus on the requirements of their app's end user and the goals of the human interface guidelines before creating an app with a great user experience. They must also know when to edit voraciously the element of a design that make it redundant or downright confusing. On top of that, they must have a full understanding of the key differences between Android and iOS app UI design. How else can they know what can be achieved with each platform?
Android's Material Design guidelines and Apple's iOS guidelines work to improve the UX of all apps by keeping aspects of their animation, graphics, style and branding all consistent. In their own way they each take a "mother knows best" approach to showing app creators how to keep their work distinctive and easy on the eye. The creators of these guidelines have done such a good job that users have grown used to, and even reliant, on one design over the other. Many users of Apple's iOS would be uncomfortable switching to an Android device because they are so used to their chosen device's design.
Knowing the language of the Android and iOS UI environments is very important for impeccable communication—words and terminology have specific meanings to each set of users. Designers feel they have accomplished their goal if they can stay within the unique design guidelines of Apple iOS and Google Material while still maintaining consistency between the two apps they must create if they want to be available to both markets. Consistency must exist between animation, graphics, branding, and things like gestures so that users can describe and communicate about the app using the same language.
More on Google's new Material design
When Google's Material Design was announced for Android 5.0, many people were impressed with the efforts Google was making to change the design game. It uses classic design principles and techniques to spell out a new design metaphor inspired by the tactile qualities of paper and ink. Material acts to guide your eyes through the app, much in the same way that way-finding design guides visitors through physical spaces.
The design language is lighter, supported by familiar and time-tested guidelines, and dare we say it's a bit more fun too?
The question is what are the key differences between Android's material design and iOS app UI design? You might have the apples versus oranges metaphor floating around in your head right now, but we've tried to pick out the common denominators and compare them on as level a playing field as possible.
Why do developers prefer iOS for new apps?
App developers harbor a bias toward iOS for a distinct reason: although Android has a larger share of the market, the App Store pays out bigger on purchases. For developers who are working on a shoestring budget to produce an app that will impress investors enough to secure their business' future, a choice must be made between creating a prototype with Apple's guidelines or with Google's guidelines.
Choosing the store that promises the biggest payout could mean the difference between the startup surviving for another year on their own earnings, or having to find money elsewhere to fuel further development. The choice of a developer to release their app to the App Store first isn't a technical preference, it is likely a smart business move.
Apple also offers a much lighter selection of devices that are all more or less the same, save for some hardware and software upgrades. Developing for Android requires more testing across all brands of devices, which could take quite a while for a rich app like a video game.
Additionally, Apple has more stringent regulations and terms to their guidelines. They also have an app review process. According to Apple:
"We review all apps submitted to the App Store in an effort to determine whether they are reliable, perform as expected, and are free of offensive material. As you plan and develop your app, make sure to use these guidelines and resources."
The process is appealing because it poses one of the biggest hurdles when taking an app to market, so developers feel that if they can iron out the bugs enough to pass Apple's test, they can avoid leaving the same bugs or rejected features into the Android version. Once an app is shelved in the App Store, you can pretty well bet that Google Play will be stocking it soon as well.
Basic differences in Android and Apple apps
iOS is Apple's software and to play ball you must play by Apple's rules. It's as proprietary as Apple could possibly make it, while magically seeming so autonomous. The fact that Apple's iOS didn't support Flash used to be one of the points that left Android users baffled about Apple's bullheadedness.
In contrast, Android is far more open, allowing for:
- Swap one dialer or SMS app for another
- Home screen widget support
- Installation of alternative launchers
Another difference is that while Google apps run quite happily on iOS, iOS apps are not conversely compatible. That goes for a lot of data created by each device, it is much easier to move if from Android to Apple than the other way around.
As far as differences go, that's just the start. The contrast between the two UI design guidelines and styles only gets more sophisticated from here.
Overall cost of development
Android apps require 38% more coding than the iOS versions. That means Android development incites a faster burn rate, that is the rate in which a startup consumes their monetary resources.
Developers always had the feeling that their Android development was taking longer than that of the iOS version. It happens even when the Android version was fashioned after the iOS version bugs were ironed out. Infinitum proved "once and for all" (or at least for six of their in-house projects) that the inference is correct, and therefore developers should use this information to make better decisions about which platform they should develop for first and what they can expect with the hours put in versus the returns for each product.
If this is something that you need to consider when building your app, know that line-for-line of code, Android typically takes about 30% more time to create than iOS. If you have allotted 500 hours to produce your app for the App Store, tack on another 150 hours when you set out to develop for Google Play Store This takes into consideration the fact that Android uses the more verbose language of Java, the emulators take more time (blogger, Cameron Henneke, once called them "a complete waste of time") and the fragmentation that developers have to deal with across all devices is greater.
App Behaviors: Notifications and Permissions
iOS lets the user set their notification flow on an app-by-app basis. Google's software includes a drop-down notification drawer that shows notifications as a batch that allows notifications to be targeted and dealt with individually, similar to a to-do list. Lollipop's new Priority mode means Android has something to match Apple's Do Not Disturb feature. At first, users tend to find this feature a little baffling on both systems, so they seem to be more similar than they are different in this regard.
App permissions follow that same pattern. On Android, app permissions are an all-or-nothing decision that is made when installing the app but leaves these permissions separate and open to editing at any time.
Depth is where motion and layers work together for a more engaging UX. Although it is something that is addressed by both design guidelines, they each do it uniquely. While iOS plays with blurs and gradients on a "flat" surface, Android's paper-forward concept favors drop shadows.
Deference means that an interface doesn't compete with the content—it stays out of the way or complements it. Deference is where iOS and Android differ the most. Android uses the concept of cards to make the content seem more tactile. This design choice cuts down on the amount of content that can be displayed on the sides of the screen, as does the floating action button (FAB). One could also argue that Android's screaming color scheme competes for attention over the content.
Clarity refers to the text legibility, comprehensive icons and sharp contrast. Clarity can also be platform-specific. While the icons and text that each interface uses differ, both show a good sense of clarity. In the end, how successfully clear a design is, depends on the designer and the preferences of the user.
Both platforms replicate real life in major ways. They use blur, animations and drop shadows and animations that replicate the real world. While Skeuomorphic design helped usher us into new online environments and apps, but we don't need these overly-designed elements any longer. Because of that, skeuomorphism elements of each UI design are their weakest link. You might even say that they are redundant and frivolous.
Utilizing the device rotation feature in an app differs between Android and Apple app development. On Android, it proves to be a longer and more buggy process whereas iOS does most of the heavy lifting in the process. Android terminates the entire stack of views during rotation, only to recreate them after the rotation is completed. With iOS, the platform manages your stacks during these rotations.
App security is another point where Android and Apple diverge. Android has proved to be less secure than iOS, which means that unauthorized software is easier to add to an Android device. Apple users generally have to have their phone "unlocked" to gain more control over what they can do within the operating system. Of course, if users stick to buying their apps directly from the official app store of each OS, then the risk is minimized. Both stores regularly scan the apps they stock for security risks.
While Apple users pay a higher price for marginally better security, Android users pay for their freedom of apps with a higher susceptibility to malware.
The Beta testing phase
Beta testing for both platforms should essentially follow some fundamental similarities. Like testing a wide enough group of volunteers who can offer clear feedback and suggestions on improving the current version. Getting Android users a version of your app is as easy as posting a link which allows them to download the app to their device. The only preparation necessary is flipping the switch in Settings to allows the user to install apps that are not found in Google Play. Google makes it easy for real users to test your app by supporting the alpha and beta versions in the Developers Console and staged rollouts. iOS beta testing is significantly harder, although services like Xamarin and Apple's preferred TestFlight simplify the process. Of course, Apple needs the UDID of every device used for testing because they add it to the certificate used to sign the beta version of the app. Therefore, you may find you need to create and distribute a new build of the app each time you add a tester. Plus, you will be limited to 100 registered test devices per year.
Posting apps to Google Play is as simple as it gets. One click (or just about that) and 30 minutes is all it takes to see your app on Google Play. Publishing in the app store is a whole other story because it could be a week or more before the app is even looked at by an Apple reviewer. In the case of a rejection, that could mean a whole other round of development to bring the app up to Apple's stringent standards. The process may not make complete sense when you look at the competing apps that made the cut for the App Store but look far less superior to yours. Developers don't try to hide the fact that this is probably the most frustrating part of the development process and the reason why they are glad to get it over with first before delving into the more time-consuming task of developing their app's Android counterpart.
In the end...
What we can say about the differences between Android and iOS app UI design is that each values certain tools and modes of communication over another when it comes to connecting with users. What we will see over the next eight years will only prove that through their key differences and even their similarities, Android and iOS form a symbiotic relationship in the market that is both playful and fierce and competitive enough to keep developers on their toes to create the latest, greatest and least buggy app in the store.
Choosing between Android and iOS, for developers, is strategic. For the public, the choice is less about which operating system has the best apps or which apps work better and more about how the whole experience feels. That's how mature development of both UI designs has become and indicative of where they will go next.